Burlington, VT –The Dormition of the Mother of God parish in Burlington, VT recently enjoyed a dual celebration. It celebrated its nameday, since the church is dedicated to the Theotokos, and also it hosted its annual Greek Festival which brings the community together in a celebratory gathering and spirit which also supports the parish financially.
The parish ecclesiastically belongs to the Metropolis of Boston under Metropolitan Methodios and it is one of the historic parishes of New England.
Fr. Ephraim Ehrs is the presiding priest. His presvytera works for the Archdiocese’s Religious Education Department, and he was assigned to the parish last September. According to Ehrs, the parish has “has close to 90 stewards but my estimate is that there are 200 to 250 in the area.” He added that “we have recent immigrants from the Republic of Moldova who are Orthodox.”
Asked how he approaches the issue pastorally to attract the unchurched into the life of the church he said “as far as the old guard if you wish, the Greek-Americans, I am trying to reach out and build the bridges where there might be old conflicts and so forth that goes back.”
Fr. Ehrs also said that “there are also some Ukrainians, some Serbs, and some Russians, we have one or two from Greece but the major population is from Moldova, and we are the only full-time Orthodox church in the state of Vermont. There is one mission church that belongs to the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) and a small Greek Orthodox parish in Rutland served by Fr. Nicanor Koutelas that serves Liturgy once a month.”
How does he feel serving such a small parish? “I like it. I feel blessed, but it has its challenges. We are trying to assist the recent immigrants who do not speak English very well by adding some of their language in the service because we want to make them feel at home.” He said that “for the most part we are an English-speaking church, although there is a core group of Greek people that created the parish and they still serve it. So, we do 70-30 English to Greek in our Services and we retain the Greek heritage and we are proud of it, but at the same time we are trying to facilitate all these new immigrants’ young families with newborn babies. We continue the Greek heritage; we have the Greek festival. Twice a year our parish has a bake sale of Greek pastries. We have the Greek school, the Greek dance group but the reality of our parish right now is we don’t have any recent immigration from Greece. The Greek population that founded and sustained the parish over the last three to four decades is dying. We are in a transitional sage. We are moving from being a very Greek community to a more pan-Orthodox community, and that is a reality for us in order to survive as a parish, but that doesn’t mean that we are shying away from our Byzantine heritage. We belong to the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, this is our home.”
He said that “the recent Greek festival was successful, we had good weather.”
Regarding finances, he said “we are still building our stewardship system. We are hoping one day to get to the point where all the regular bills are paid by the people’s contribution. But at this time we are in transitional period and we rely on the Festival, and the two bake sales.”
Speaking about the programs of the parish he said “we have a very active Sunday School with 12 to 18 students on a given Sunday. Many families live far away, even an hour drive and they come every other Sunday. We also have Greek School, which is the initiative of one of our parishioners, Theodora Contis. She provided six weeks of Greek School and Greek dancing and we have 20 students.” Fr. Ehrs is Swedish. He was born Lutheran and at the age of 18 he converted to Roman-Catholicism, and later on he became Orthodox.
What attracted him to Orthodoxy was “the purity of the faith, the longstanding heritage. The turning point for me was the realization that the Orthodox Church has maintained the purity of the faith from Christ to today despite various events in history like the schism with the Roman-Catholic Church, despite the Ottoman oppression of the Greek communities in Asia Minor.”
Ehrs feels very comfortable with the Hellenic identity of the Church. He said “the flash, the language, the backbone of Orthodoxy in the world is Greek, the Hellenistic backbone; the theological language is in Greek. The Byzantine heritage is very rich. The more you can understand it by knowing the language, that enriches your understanding of who God is and our relationship as human beings.”